Peripheries on Edge

Pope Francis’ Mass in Manila last month drew a huge crowd, probably larger than the entire population of Ireland. Given that Ireland’s birth-rate, as in almost every “developed” nation, is below replacement level (Ireland only added about 4000 people in 2014), while the Philippines’ remains above, it’s easy to see why he’s devoting time and attention to such places, which he calls “peripheries.” Barring some shakeup in our advanced societies, they – not we – are the future of the Church and the world.

That will be the case, at least, if they take his advice (rabbit gaffe aside) about welcoming children and large families, and not the poison pill of the U.N., E.U., or current U.S. administration. The Philippines approved contraception in 2012, despite heavy Church resistance, and may choose the usual downward path: abortion, divorce, family dissolution, and the ash-heap of history. All very progressive and modern and suicidal.

Francis rightly calls this “ideological colonization.”

On the plane back from the Philippines, he spoke, as he has before, of Robert Hugh Benson’s 1903 novel Lord of the World: “reading it you will understand what I mean by ‘ideological colonization.’” Benson’s book is subtle and rich – and repays re-readings. But it’s clear what Francis meant: in the world it anticipated, it’s not man-versus-machines, as in current films. It’s not even marginalized rabble rising up against hyper-modern empire.

In Benson’s story, the world exists in two large blocs. One led by a strange Messianic figure who combines technological progressivism with a religion of Humanity – a powerful brew. The other centered around Pope John XXIV (good guess, Benson), who has eliminated technological distractions so that the true spiritual situation of man and the sovereignty of God will be visible.

A priest reflects, looking out over Rome:

The two Cities of Augustine lay for him to choose. The one was that of a world self-originated, self-organised and self-sufficient, interpreted by such men as Marx and Herve, socialists, materialists, and, in the end, hedonists, summed up at last in [Julian] Felsenburgh. The other lay displayed in the sight he saw before him, telling of a Creator and of a creation, of a Divine purpose, a redemption, and a world transcendent and eternal from which all sprang and to which all moved. One of the two, John and Julian, was the Vicar, and the other the Ape, of God.

Among the many things about Pope Francis that have taken a while to understand is that he has a settled worldview about the dual role the “peripheries” play in our time related to this larger background.

On the one hand, they are places that need to be actively engaged:

The Church is called to come out from itself and to go to the peripheries, not just the geographical but also the existential peripheries: those of the mystery of sin, of suffering, of injustice, of ignorance and lack of religion, those of thought and those of every kind of misery.

He said this in impressive fashion during the 2013 General Congregations, the private consultations among the cardinals prior to the papal election.

Pope Francis arrives for a Mass at Manila’s Rizal Park. Six-million Filipinos attended.
Pope Francis arrives for a Mass at Manila’s Rizal Park. More than six-million Filipinos attended.

That side of him is familiar. Perhaps less known is his belief that globalization – despite its positive dimensions – has not only impacted people’s livelihoods (he speaks as one who has mostly only seen globalization filtered through local corruption). First-world culture has separated people from the folk Catholicism by which the faith was long transmitted from generation to generation. Families, too, have been a casualty. So such peripheries are on edge, wherever they are located.

Oddly, to our view, Francis at the same time believes that the peripheries, in turn, will be the places from which will come reform of “the center” – not only society, but the Church herself. As Cardinal Maradiaga, the controversial head of the pope’s council of cardinal advisers, put it in a recent speech outlining Francis’ program:

Usually, renovation begins with pastoral activities. For it is there where the inconsistencies of a certain “model” of the Church and reality are primarily experienced. The missionaries, the evangelists on the “margins” of the Church, are the first ones to notice the insufficiency of the “traditional” ways of action; the pastoral criticism begins with the experience of the mission in the “peripheries.”

This hearkens back to the 2007 Aparecida Document of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference. Jorge Bergoglio was its main author. Some believe that it suggests Latin America holds a special key to this renewal.

A bold claim, since the Church there is not conspicuously growing. To be sure, there are still large numbers of serious Catholics from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego – and serious renewal movements. But in several countries, the people will soon be evenly split between Catholics and evangelical groups.

I myself have seen Adventist, and Jehovah’s Witness, and even Mormon chapels in Brazilian rainforests where no Catholic church is to be found. Many who abandon the Church want a more personalized spiritual life, and Francisco Bergoglio has long tried to provide it. But people often also say, in my experience, they want a spiritual community, not another institution engaged in frustrating and corrupt politics.

The pope’s own homeland, Argentina, has shrinking birthrates and growing numbers of ex-Catholics. If you read the Aparecida Document and many of the pope’s statements, there’s an emphasis on preaching Jesus more vigorously as our only resource. True, of course, in its way, but it’s doubtful whether the Catholic Church can compete with the evangelicals on such grounds alone.

Folk Catholicism is one strategy, in certain situations. But what of the rich Catholic culture, the heir of the classical world, the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and much more? Is all that simply irrelevant and unattractive and unintelligible now?

The Church is embattled in the developed world, persecuted in the Middle East, groping for a new way in Latin America, growing in Africa and Asia – amidst threats and problems. We’re all in the peripheries – and on edge – now.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.